This page is outdated. The text below is from the first, 2007 draft of Meaningness. My understanding of the material has changed since then, and the style I write in too. Someday I would like to rewrite this; but I hope the 2007 version may be adequate for now.
As an attempt to reconcile eternalism and nihilism—with an emphasis on eternalism—mission tries to overcome the obstacles to eternalism and the defects of nihilism. The obstacles to eternalism are the obviousness of nebulosity and meaningness, and the necessity of submitting one’s self to the eternal ordering principle. Mission admits nebulosity in the mundane domain, thereby partially evading eternalist demands. And, we’ll see soon, it also tries to preserve one’s personal self-definition in the eternal domain, by obfuscating and owning higher purposes. Meanwhile, mission attempts to evade nihilism’s accurate perception of the nebulosity of the self by reinforcing it with a fixed higher purpose.
Eternalism holds that all things are meaningful, which includes the mundane. However, while this is not logically necessary, eternalist religions typically give negative value to “the world” and the domain of animal meaning.1 Consequently, mundane behavior is tightly regulated. The stance of mission allows you to withdraw this part of your life from the purview of the Cosmic Plan. In the stance of mission, mundane concerns are seen not to matter, so that one has the freedom to behave any old way. As a consequence, the material lives of those committed to mission tend to be nasty messes, marked by financial irresponsibility, distorted and neurotic relationships, and neglect of their personal physical environment. One can justify this on the grounds that mundane concerns are trivial, and that it is actually noble to neglect them, sacrificing them to the mission.
For eternalism, higher purposes are fixed and universal. The eternal ordering principle gives everyone has the same purpose, or at most there are a small number of prescribed roles (such as priest, layman, housewife). If you subscribe to an eternalist religion, any priest can tell you exactly what you ought to do, and he will have the same answer for everyone in your role. As a consequence, the eternalist has certainty. If you act in accordance with the eternal principle, you have divine justification for your action, and a guarantee of your righteousness. For many people this is profoundly comforting. It frees one from freedom, and the uncomfortable responsibility of choice that comes with freedom.
But doing the same thing everyone else is supposed to do is dreary. Mission is attractive when we want the comfort of eternalism but find that it is too restrictive. We want more freedom to do our own thing. Even when we aren’t sure what our higher purpose is, we are pretty darn sure it isn’t what the priest says. It is most often those who are not committed members of an organized religion who commit instead to mission as a stance. They are “spiritual but not religious” or “seekers” or New Agers or “have their own path,” or try to combine the uncombinable (“I’m a Neo-Pagan Christian”; “I’m a Buddhist and an observant Jew”; “I’m really into Taoism and Native American shamanism”). Generally one comes to this kind of vague and conflicted spirituality because the demands of authentic religions are too strenuous, but one is unwilling to abandon religion for materialism.
I have defined mission as fixing higher purposes while denying mundane meaningfulness. In practice, proponents of mission usually go a step beyond this definition. They hold that you have a single, unique, personal higher purpose: your mission. Moreover, only you can discover what your personal mission is, although it is a gift to you from God.2 This puts your mission beyond the control of priests and dogma, which gives you a measure of private living space in the realm of higher purpose, but at the same time preserves your divine warrant.
Whereas purposes according to eternalism are typically common knowledge, mission is initially mysterious. Not only does my unique personal mission have to be discovered by me personally, this can be done only using non-ordinary methods. The ordinary, or “rational,” approach to choosing purposes beyond the mundane might be based on assessing my talents, skills, and circumstances, and comparing how well these might serve available higher ends, such as various arts, forms of socially beneficial work, or religious activities. Mission dismisses this approach as nasty materialism. (As a variant of nihilism, materialism does tend to be nasty—and intelligent. As a variant of eternalism, mission tends to be “nice”—and credulous.)
To find my mission, I must, rather, use quasi-magical methods, such as prayer, divination, vision questing, talk therapy, dream work, or meditation. There are whole industries who can help you with this: career counselors, hallucinogenic shamans, fundamentalist ministers, management coaches, aromatherapists, past-life regression rebirthers, and Jungians—among many others. From a nasty materialist point of view, all these approaches boil down to grubbing about in my psychology to create some vague but attractive fantasy of what I might do. Collectively, I will call these psycho-magic.
Mission’s theory of suffering can be stated as a distorted form of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths:
- The materialist way of life is full of suffering.
- Suffering is caused by failure to align one’s actions with one’s true mission.
- Suffering can be ended by aligning one’s actions with one’s mission.
- The way to align one’s actions with one’s mission is to apply psycho-magic.
Deep down in our hearts, we all know that we have a mission. We know that there must be more to life than the mundane rat race; so we must have a true calling, a reason we were put here on earth. When we find it and embrace it, everything falls into place and we discover profound inner peace. Acting on our mission gives life an extraordinary appeal, the wonderful feeling that we are in synch with reality and fulfilling the promise of something transcendent. Mission is more than a job description or social role; it is a matter of the soul. Only the life-force-denying insistence of society that we pay allegiance to a spurious realism, and the siren song of petty materialism, keeps us from following our hearts and joyfully doing that which we were truly meant to. Resisting our deep purpose causes only pain, struggle, and heartache.
Materialism’s quantitative theory of suffering gives rise to competition, success and failure. If you think you will eventually get enough, it’s hard to break out of materialism. Mission’s qualitative theory is particularly attractive to people who believe they can’t successfully compete. It can be a kind of consolation prize. No one else has my unique mission, so there’s no possibility of comparing accomplishments. The expectation that one’s mission be unique explains why it is hard to find.
Since my single inherent mission is supposed to guide me throughout my life, it is necessarily abstract and open-ended. It cannot actually either be accomplished, nor can I definitely fail to accomplish it. I can only act in accordance with it, or not. This avoids the problem real higher purposes can share with mundane ones: that both success and failure are disappointing.
Because my mission is inherent in me from birth, no one can take it away. Talent fades, or can become obsolete, or is surpassed by the next generation. It is nebulous. My unique mission, however, cannot be challenged by reality: it is eternal and absolute.
The confused “true self” stance is therefore also closely allied with mission: my unique, true purpose is the essence of my authentic being—or close to it.
- 1. Some predominantly eternalist religions may deny the meaningfulness of the mundane altogether—in which case they have adopted the stance of mission rather than being fully eternalistic. Nietzsche wrote [need cite] that Christianity is nihilistic in removing meaning from this earthly life, to instead focus on a supposed afterlife. To the extent that this is true (which seems to vary among Christian sects), Christianity is not altogether eternalistic.
- 2. Some advocates for mission say that your mission was something that you and God collaborated in constructing before you were born. You mostly forgot it during the birth process; some children remember it better than many adults.